QUICK, FIND THE RACIST

It’s the guy on top, of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose most ambitious work, “English Traits,” is a treatise on the superiority of the English race to all others: Africans, Indians, the French, and the Irish.

Poe abhorred the sort of pedantic sermonizing for which Emerson was famous; elevating American literature with his breakthrough brand of scientific  populism, Poe navigated the pre-Civil War years working and living in the North as a compromise figure, despised by militants on both sides.  It is easy to forget, even today, that a middle ground between militant pro-slavery and militant abolitionism did exist, where Poe chose to stay, as he transformed and modernized world literature.

So what was a Yank like Emerson thinking, writing his race-baiting tract, in the years leading up to the America civil war?   “English Traits” was published in 1856,  a few years before the gunfire at Fort Sumter.  Poe died in 1849, before the Compromise of 1850, before John Brown’s raids, and Poe never published any papers on slavery or race, staying clear, in a time when it was almost impossible to do so, of those hot topics which eventually produced the divisive holocaust of 1861–1865.

English Traits?  Why English?  Wasn’t Emerson a leading American author?    Wasn’t Emerson aware that England’s global ambitions were responsible for America’s system of slavery in the first place, that England wanted her American colony back and that England was exploiting American division on race to effect that end?  Why, in his “English Traits,” would Emerson assert that India belonged to England because the English race was superior to the Indian race?  Why did Emerson go so far as to remind his readers in “English Traits” that the English “sea kings” had a “long memory” and might rise up and take back their colonies if the times were right?

It kind of makes a Yankee scratch his head—and wonder.

Poe and Emerson famously did not get along.

Perhaps their quarrel was more nuanced and subtle than has been  previously thought?  Perhaps it was more geopolitical, in nature?  Emerson, when he wasn’t living in comfort in Cambridge, Massachussets, was wined and dined in England.  Poe, after visiting England as a boy, and perhaps sailing to Paris as a young man, spent his literary career attempting to establish (while almost starving) America’s literary independence while living in Boston, Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York.

It does cause one to scratch one’s head just a little bit, and wonder.

Does it not?

14 Comments

  1. poeblogger said,

    December 31, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Emerson is a huge hypocrite; there’s nothing to debate there. His “Americanism” only comes in bursts, as does his Transcendentalism, frankly. Note that he didn’t live in Cambridge, Mass. very long either (outside his Harvard years) so I’m not sure why you comment on that – “comfortably” or not (I thought it was common knowledge he was a Concord writer). Emerson also did visit the South, by the way, and he did meet Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C. At the end of his life he also visited Egypt. He’s really not as provincial as you imply.

    Yet, you do not address Poe at all here. Basic characterizations in “The Gold-Bug” and “A Predicament” could be called racist, but you don’t mention those. You also don’t mention Poe’s review of Longfellow’s “Poems on Slavery” (1842). In fact, you present no evidence at all that Poe was not a racist. Sure, he avoided directly writing about slavery (other than his Longfellow review) but how many political tracts did he write at all? Does a lack of evidence prove anything, ultimately, one way or the other?

  2. thomasbrady said,

    December 31, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    Poeblogger,

    Yes, Emerson lived in Concord most of the time, not Cambridge; thanks for pointing that out.

    Emerson was “comfortable.” He married a rich lady who was ill, and when she died, he successfully sued her family for the fortune.

    The point of the piece is simply to report a glaring omission in American Letters: the highly suspect nature of Emerson’s “English Traits.” I never said E. was “provincial;” my thrust here is that E. earned a lot of literary capital in Britain and spent a great deal of time there. As for Poe, should we find him guilty on lack of evidence? For too long Poe has been damned in this way.

    I don’t want to quibble over things like Mr. E’s “visit” to the South; if you care to cite the nature of that “visit,” fine, but it wasn’t significant. Poe lived and worked in the North.

    The overall thrust here is, I admit, based on some nuance. The holocaust and destruction of the United States was a very real threat, and many believed that threat was being pushed by slavery fanatics AND abolitionist fanatics disingenuously taking the moral high ground for insidious purposes.

    The point of the piece was not to make an exhaustive list of every hint of private racist feelng in people who lived two centuries ago. The point is not to play ‘gotcha.’ The very real fact is this: Emerson’s “English Traits” trumps by a long shot any thing Poe may have done. This issue needs to be confronted. Poe abused certain writers in Boston for political reasons, but for very complex political reasons.

    As for “The Gold Bug,” Jupiter is a fine specimen of humanity, and like “A Predicament,” “The Gold Bug” is a reflection of society as it was then; “A Predicament” is a very broad satire on white society; to construe these tales as “racist” is racist. Last time I checked, “racist” was not defined by racially neutral depictions of racial realities. Emerson’s “Engish Traits” is racist, by definition.

    Thomas

  3. poeblogger said,

    January 1, 2010 at 1:15 am

    Yes, you didn’t explicitly say he was provincial, but you did note a “geopolitical” schism between Emerson and Poe, without noting how well-traveled he was and, therefore, that he is just as hard to pinpoint geographically as Poe. Here’s my quibble: This short piece claims that Emerson was categorically a racist and provides only one piece of evidence of that conclusion, ignoring his much more ample abolitionism, his speech in defense of John Brown, his public support of Lincoln and ending slavery, etc. You provide absolutely no evidence at all (nothing!!) to support Poe was not a racist, yet you categorically claim he wasn’t one. What we must wonder, then, is which is our “default” assumption. Ultimately, all these people are complicated so any categorical definition is likely to have exceptions. There is no argument here; that’s my only point.

  4. poetryandporse said,

    January 1, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    I admit to not having read the English Traits tract, and to knowing nothing of Emerson the person. I have read only a few pieces of his, in a book of prose essays I picked up from Murragh at the Magic Bookstall one Sunday afternoon last summer, and which I also have to admit, thought very poetic and eloquent.

    My initial instinctive response to this piece – that the screaming headline/wanted poster vibe was a bit (ok, a lot) OTT – seemed borne out when I went to the wikipedia page for a basic info and read the exact opposite claims to those of this Scarriet squib. Stab at defaming a dead father of contemporary American intellectual consciousness this article claims was more Bernard Manning than Ken Dodd.

    Bernard Manning was a famous comedian from Manchester England who wrote his own obiturary two days before he died at the age of 76 in 2007.

    He was often referred to as racist because of his act, in which the telling of paki, jews, micks and nigger jokes in 1970’s Britain, was perfectly accptable. He denied all charges, as you can read at the link, calling himself an ‘equal opportunities comedian’ only interested in getting a laugh out of any situation.

    “I had a distant German relative who died at Auschwitz. He fell out of one of the watchtowers.”

    Now that’s humour, precisely because it’s close to the edge, unlike so many of the tired, comfortable, right- on lines about George Bush in which modern comics indulge, massaging the consciences of their middle-class audiences instead of giving them raw entertainment.

    Oh, I can see the other obituaries already: “Bernard Manning, racist bigot”, the smug types will say when they hear of my departure.

    ~

    He denied being racist, but had a problem because, I suspect, what he thought and wanted to say, and what he did say, due to his lack of linguistic skills, did not tally. The sincere beliefs he held as a patriotic English person with a particular working-class world-view, in which Race is a difficult subject to articulate without falling into one of two stereotypical traps, were more nuanced than a For or Against us type of carry-on that lends itself to unrealistic moral judgements of a person having to be either a Racist or Saint.

    Surely, the truth is, we are all capable of being both and have thought ‘racist’ thoughts now and again. Fleetingly perhaps and knowing when we do it is a moral wrong-thing to think, before chastizing ourself and begging forgiveness from whatever source (if any) one has as a moral pole-star to whom/which we give thanks and pray to, or don’t believe in.

    ‘I was never a racist.’ Manning wrote in his obituary. ‘That’s
    just an easy, catch-all term of abuse bandied around by the media elite against anyone who does not follow their agenda. It was just meaningless.
    When told by some toffee-nosed southerner that I was prejudiced, I used to say: “Have you actually seen my act?” They would then admit they hadn’t. “Then you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re the one who is prejudiced because you are pre-judging me.”

    If they’d ever bothered to turn up at one of my shows, they’d have soon discovered I told gags about everyone, including all sorts of politicians and the Royal Family.

    In fact the Queen once told me with a smile, after a Royal Command Performance, how much she liked my act. If it was good enough for her, it should have been good enough for anyone.’

    Bernard was an ardent royalist, lurved his monarch he did. A true Englishman, as they say. I’ll have to read the English traits piece, but in the fictional court of my imagination, I am currently minded to act as counsel for the defence of Emerson, but am willing to switch sides if it benefits one to do so. If it brings me kudos, cash, or just for a laugh, like good old Bernard the ‘racist’ who never made it funny like the noin-racist Liverpool comdian and living legend who wrote a doctorate on Humour, Ken Dodd, who will now speak what Emerson wrote:

    “I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom” Emerson said in 1856, at a meeting in Concord, around the time English Traits was published. Wikipedia states:

    ‘Emerson used slavery as an example of a human injustice, especially in his role as a minister. In early 1838, provoked by the murder of an abolitionist publisher from Alton, Illinois named Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Emerson gave his first public antislavery address. As he said, “It is but the other day that the brave Lovejoy gave his breast to the bullets of a mob, for the rights of free speech and opinion, and died when it was better not to live”.

    I’m wholly lost now Tom, take no notice of my ramblings, I am merely marshalling the writings of the dead, and Emerson is a big ask to down. The author of The American Scholar, I always thought (since reading it last summer) was a peculiarly imaginative soul who was windy as heck and could blather about with great skill and class. Was he ‘really’ a Racist Tom?

    The evidence thus far suggests not, but I like this piece, because it says stuff that might ‘fail’ and this is what stands out about your writing, that one day you write a turkey and the next a work of genius. You are unafraid to say silly stuff with a straight face, and believe it. Not many out there are capable of this, in the world of po-biz that is, have this quality and gumption of wit which is the most obvious sign of a poetic intelligence doing what it says on the tin: being imaginative and fabricating claims about the dead which are so outrageously NMS (non main-stream), that the MS mass of main-stream casuals in this business of ours, trading language for the craic, playing the game Tom, pretending – most of ’em, just don’t get what you guys do. That the way to be different is to juxtapose stuff whose contrasting qualities make it stand-up and be read because it may be silly, stupid and plain wrong, but never less than interesting and provoking a response. Perhaps the most challenging stunt to pull of: actually getting people to read poetry-in-prose.

    Happy new year, Emerson was a puff.

    Desmond

  5. thomasbrady said,

    January 2, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    Poeblogger,

    Happy New Year!

    “You provide absolutely no evidence at all (nothing!!) to support Poe was not a racist,”

    This is ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’ rhetoric. Please provide evidence to me that you are not a racist. Oy vey.

    “English Traits” is not some private piece of correspondence scribbled when Emerson was 15. It is a mature work, his most ambitious work, existing as both text and lecture on his lecture-circuit in the tinderbox years, the 1850s, leading up to the American Civil War when Britain was praying for the U.S. to be torn apart by the slavery issue (and Great Britain provided weapons to the Confederacy, too).

    I appreciate your interest on the issue, and I agree that it’s complex, but your objection seems to rest mostly on ‘So, when did you (Poe) stop beating your (his) wife?’

    Thomas

  6. thomasbrady said,

    January 2, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    Porsey,

    I’d never heard of Bernard Manning. Thanks.

    Was Winston Churchill a hero or a bigoted monster? There are good arguments on both sides. It’s complex, innit?

    “Quck, Find the Racist” is merely an (attention-getting) attempt to correct an imbalance in past perception; it’s not meant as the final word.

    Thomas

  7. poeblogger said,

    January 3, 2010 at 1:58 am

    Earlier, you asked, “Should we find him [Poe] guilty on lack of evidence?” Now you’re suggesting that I’m asking when Poe stopped beating his wife. I’ve already provided several instances that show Poe’s racism – or, if nothing else, his sensibilities common to the time period for a Southerner (yes, he lived and worked in the North for a time; he also lived and worked in the South for just as long and in his youth was attended by slaves). Show me one time that Poe said something like what Whittier, Lowell, Longfellow, Sumner, Whitman and countless others said on behalf of blacks in this period. Or, better, show why we should ignore Poe’s direct responses to the abolitionists. Here’s one more: According to one of his letters, Poe is most hurt by his foster-father John Allan when he is treated as lesser than a black person – a true insult for a Southerner. Ultimately, I agree that all generalizations are false (including this one) but let’s keep it complicated: Poe was certainly not free of racism.

  8. thomasbrady said,

    January 3, 2010 at 4:41 am

    Poeblogger,

    I like the way you put this: Poe, and I guess none of us, are “free of racism.”

    Whitman was a racist, by the way, as were many abolitionists. Right after the Civil War, you saw two things happening: First: Northerners exploiting former slaves as poorly paid, cheap labor. These included brothers of Henry and William James. Secondly: Northerners hoping to stir up freed slaves to start a second Civil War of black against white in the South. This included New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, who was hawkish and pro-Union in the beginning of the war, in favor of stopping the war in the middle of the conflict, (even talking to Napolean III on this issue behind Lincoln’s back!) and at the end of the war, spent his own money to get Jefferson Davis freed. Like the American revolution, the American Civil War was a geopolitical conflict of vast international scope, and many in America saw radical abolitionism as a foreign plot to divide and conquer the United States; my point is not to argue the validity of this view, just to point out that it was a factor, and Poe may have been convinced; that Poe was not an out-spoken abolitionist at his death in 1849 does not prove that he was a racist. Poe’s political views were as subtle as anyone’s. He was not a yahoo. Poe is often tacitly excluded from the moral dinner table of American Letters where the Emersons and the Whitmans and the Alcotts dine, and I don’t think this is fair.

    Thomas

  9. poeblogger said,

    January 3, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    First, “racist” is a strong anachronistic term; I maintain that we should be talking about commonly-held views for the time period. The post started as, “Who is racist, Poe or Emerson?” Because it is an “either/or” question, the conclusion that Emerson is a racist implies that Poe is not. I would argue that Emerson, despite his racism, still tried to follow the moral high ground in support of ending slavery. Whitman did the same thing.

    Again, I’m not saying that Poe should be considered a racist because there is no evidence that he was an abolitionist. I’m pointing out all the evidence that Poe had fairly common opinions on black people. There is plenty of evidence of this. There is no evidence that he was an abolitionist; your only source is “why not?” My evidence is, “Because of all this evidence that he was anti-black people.” To reiterate:

    Jupiter in “The Gold-Bug” is presented as a stereotypical, uneducated black servant, using colloquial expressions and being so dumb that he doesn’t know right from left.

    The black character in “A Predicament” (the name escapes me right now) is a perpetual joke in the story who eventually abandons his master when trouble starts.

    Poe’s review of “Poems on Slavery” by Longfellow clearly responds to abolitionist poetry (before the so-called Longfellow War). In particular, he notes that Longfellow writes especially for “negrophilic old ladies of the North” and that Longfellow should get off his high horse and stop telling the South “to give up our all.” Note that “our” rather than “their.”

    Poe’s response to James Russell Lowell’s anti-slavery poems is similar and is one of the reasons the Poe-Lowell friendship breaks down.

    Poe is especially insulted when John Allan treats him like less than a black person, implying that he expects to be treated as better than a black person.

    How about Poe siding with Southern authors? He supports William Gilmore Simms, Thomas Holley Chivers, and Edward Coate Pinkney by noting that each had their popularity suppressed simply by being Southerners.

    There is no evidence to believe Poe would have been an abolitionist – which Emerson certainly was – though you say “that Poe was not an out-spoken abolitionist at his death in 1849 does not prove that he was a racist.” There is plenty of evidence (above cited) that he would have sided with the South and that he held typical Southern sensibilities. Please don’t continue to suggest that this point of view has no evidence (see above).

  10. thomasbrady said,

    January 4, 2010 at 12:22 am

    Poeblogger,

    You continue to ignore “English Traits.”

    I said I wasn’t going to play ‘gotcha’ and that’s what you’re doing.

    I never said Emerson being a racist is evidence that Poe was not a racist, yet you keep chasing this bone.

    “The Gold Bug” and “A Predicament” are not racist tracts; they are tales and the point of neither tale (not even close) is to advance the idea that there is a superior race; this is, in fact, the theme of “English Traits.”

    I don’t if you are up on the latest in Poe studies, but scholars are discovering that pro-slavery reviews in the Southern Literary Messenger formerly thought to have been written by Poe, were not. There now exist no pro-slavery writings by Poe.

    Poe was a Whig, which, as you know, was a liberal party back then.

    Also, Poe inherited a slave and freed him even though laws back then made this action costly. He sold the slave to a free black family in order to set him free.

    Finally, you continue to miss the complexity of the geopolitical situation by taking the simplistic position that abolitionism was never used for cynical purposes by Britain against the United States.

    Yes, I certainly agree with you that we should put ourselves back in that time period to get an understanding of political issues.

    Imagine you love your country and you feel that it’s about to be destroyed by a devastating civil war. You feel this civil war is being urged on by those who wish nothing more than your country’s destruction. Those who wish your country’s destruction are hiding behind a hatred of slavery, even though, in fact, the issue means nothing to them at all, except as a means to destroy the United States. You understand that actual racism is everywhere and that the inflamed issue of abolitionism pushed to its immediate and logical conclusion will rip your nation apart and probably destroy it forever. For the sake of your country, you can’t bring yourself to join the abolitionist cause, even though you are against slavery, for you feel it will push your nation into a holocaust and certain destruction.

    Now, given this context, which is an accurate reflection of how things looked back then during the time leading up to the Civil War, Poe’s writings and Emerson’s “English Traits” need to be examined in a new light. That’s really all I’m saying. I’m looking at the issue geopolitically; I’m not trying to play ‘gotcha, ‘ guessing who and who is not a racist in their deepest being.

    Again, writers who supported abolitionism sincerely are not to be faulted, but the whole issue cannot be used as a simple-minded litmus test.

    Thomas

  11. poeblogger said,

    January 4, 2010 at 4:01 am

    Yes, I’m up on the latest Poe studies (card-carrying member of the Poe Studies Association). Where did you hear Poe was a Whig? Besides one minor mention of it when trying to get in good with someone? I’m not playing “gotcha” either but, your post is. “Quick, find the racist” implies that one is and one isn’t. Poe was a racist, hands-down. Evidence provided above (not including SLM editorials, which I never brought up). His pro-slavery writings, which you continue to ignore, were mentioned by me twice now, particularly his reviews of anti-slavery writers. Emerson was an abolitionist, that’s clear. I’m ignoring “English Traits” because, well, I’m not saying anything about Emerson (unless you disagree that he was an abolitionist). If you’ve noticed, I’ve been talking about Poe; “English Traits” is not relevant to my responses.

    Anyway, here’s your conclusion: Poe might have been anti-slavery. You have no evidence to support it. So, let’s just call a spade a spade: this is speculative. You won’t hear much support from the Poe crowd. You’ll hear no more from me.

  12. thomasbrady said,

    January 4, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Poeblogger,

    Thanks for stopping in. I’ve enjoyed our discussion.

    “Quick, find the racist” does not imply that one is or one isn’t a racist, as you say, at all. You’re missing the whole point: “FIND the racist” makes the whole question one of perception and this is all I’m doing: questioning the perception that Emerson was not a racist and that Poe was. It’s not cut-and-dried whatsoever. Of course you can believe anything you want.

    Secondly, “English Traits” IS relevant to your responses, because, as I’ve taken pains to point out, the whole issue of racism and slavery in the pre-Civil War period in America is a complex geo-political one and the relations between Poe and Emerson figure into that formula very prominently. You can’t know Poe if you ignore the people and writers around him.

    Matthew Pearl just published The Top Five Myths About Edgar Allan Poe in the Huffington Post. Did you see it? It’s almost as if Pearl read my article. It’s a great piece. I hope you read it.

    It’s somewhat a shame that you have all this information and you are obviously intelligent but you keep insisting on looking at the whole issue in this one-dimensional manner.

    Again, I’ve enjoyed the discussion.

    Good luck to you,

    Thomas

  13. poeblogger said,

    January 4, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    Sorry, I can’t keep away. “Quick, find the racist” was the challenge. Emerson was the answer and Poe was not (I’m just going off what was given: “It’s the guy on top, of course” rather than “Both” or “Possibly both”). I suppose it can’t be helped how I read into that but all I’m saying is, can’t Poe be considered racist (if you choose to use the anachronistic term) at all in your complicated geopolitical view? You have yet to acknowledge that possibility, despite your other speculation with little to no evidence (Poe might have been anti-slavery).

    As far as the “Poe freed a slave” argument, altruism is also speculative. He was asked to get rid of someone else’s slave, had trouble selling him, so he used an unconventional method to free him. Does that make him anti-slavery?

    I’m taking pains to get you to see that you’re positing only one point of view and dismissing all others. Despite my one-dimensional nature, you have focused on only one thing (Emerson’s “English Traits”) which is not relevant to proving what I’m trying to say (Poe had racist views). Just say, “Yes, that’s possible.”

    Yes, I’ve read Matthew Pearl’s articles (he’s a friend of mine). Have you read “Romancing the Shadow” – a full length book of essays discussing Poe’s views of race?

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 4, 2010 at 4:35 pm

      “Romancing the Shadow” recently came to my attention. I’ll check it out.

      The whole issue of racism and slavery when it comes to Poe and the world he lived in—which includes Emerson and those sorts of writers he quarreled with—is a very large ‘connect-the-dots’ reality, and many of the dots haven’t been connected yet.

      I’m only trying to expand the discussion.

      Thanks for coming back! I liked Pearl’s 5 Poe Myths article because, well, it’s really time to stop apologizing for Poe.